Hartford may not get that stadium after all, thanks to a bumbling city government and fierce opposition from residents. This might be a good thing for the city, even though it’s a loss for the region.
When I last wrote about the New Britain Rock Cats planned move to Hartford, it seemed like much more of a done deal. Fast forward a few weeks, however, and it now looks like anything but. Mayor Pedro Segarra has been forced to back away from his plan to have the city fund the ballpark, asking instead that the team pony up some of the money.
If that sounds like the kiss of death for the deal, that’s because it probably is. If there’s one thing sports teams hate doing, it’s spending their own money on stadiums.
It’s too bad — because plans for the area around the ballpark were starting to become interesting. Hooker Brewing, which has been all but throwing themselves at the city, wants to open a brewery/restaurant right next to it. That’s the sort of thing that could have attracted other restaurants and businesses to an area that right now is nothing more than a weedy sea of parking lots and on-ramps, and made the northern edge of downtown a destination instead of an eyesore.
But many of Hartford’s people have been pointing out that this whole ballpark idea seems like another sort of development aimed at getting white people from the suburbs to come downtown, drop a few bucks, and leave. They also say that private enterprises should pay for what will essentially be a money-making building for them, that stadiums never deliver the promised economic benefits, and that Hartford’s cash-strapped schools and services need the money more. It’s hard to argue with any of that.
In fact, it may be true that a baseball stadium and team in downtown Hartford would be great for the region, but the benefits would be far less tangible for the city itself.
This brings to mind the big-ticket development plans of the past few decades, the ones that were all supposed to jump-start development everywhere in the city. Some of them, like the convention center, ended up being great for the region. But were they necessarily good for the city? Will the placement of UConn’s Hartford campus in the old Hartford Times building downtown be good for the city? Will Front Street? Will the ballpark?
Hartford is being asked to carry a lot of weight as the heart of the region, despite the fact that the rest of the towns in Greater Hartford are otherwise content to ignore or actively resent the city’s problems. So it’s not surprising, then, that development priorities for city and suburbs are very, very different.
City-focused development sometimes may feel like it’s working against the rest of the region. In New Haven, they are tearing up the Oak Street Connector highway, or Route 34, in order to try and knit together parts of the city that were separated by it in the 1970s. This may mean it’ll be harder for people coming in to the city by car to get to where they want to be, but it’s better for the city.
What would city-focused development look like in Hartford? It might be small things, like streetscapes, or big things, like burying or re-routing I-84 so that it doesn’t monopolize acres of land downtown. It might be accessible neighborhood services, or more affordable housing, or better public transit. Think the busway: the suburbs hate it, but it’s going to be great for the cities it connects. But it might not be another big project that comes at too high a cost to the city.
My own first instinct is to think regionally. I think we should usually be working to do what’s best for the region, because that’s how I think we’re strongest. Downtown sports are a way to tie a region together, and provide affordable, family fun. I also freely admit that I would love to go to a ball game in downtown Hartford.
But I don’t live in Hartford. And I can recognize that it’s not fair of me to ask that the city build a ballpark that residents don’t want so people who don’t live there, and who are often very stingy about providing aid, can have a nice time. For once, we can put regional concerns aside and let the people of Hartford decide what’s best for them.
Maybe the Rock Cats can play in Newington — if they stay at all.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.